Learning to ski or snowboard at an early age is the perfect way to help young children instill a love for winter. Exploring the slopes helps kids build self-confidence, meet new friends and develop a lifelong affinity for the outdoors.
If you’ve driven to or through Vermont or skied there, then you’ve probably seen the red and white stickers decorating everything from car bumpers and Thule boxes to helmets, boots, even road signs. “Mad River Glen: Ski It If You Can,” they proclaim.
Are these stickers a challenge? A warning? A joke? An expression of pride? (Given how many people cut the stickers up and reword them to read “I Skied It” the answer to this last question is definitely yes.) What is this mysterious place and who would want to ski it?
I’m one of the fortunate people who learned to ski at Mad River as a child. When I returned to skiing there in 2010 after 16 years away, I discovered that so much of what I cherished and remembered about it was still the same. It’s still home to the Single Chair, perhaps the most contemplative lift experience I’ll ever have. I’m pretty sure they still serve chili made from the same recipe. And the views from the mountain are still as beautiful as ever – on clear days you can see all the way to Lake Champlain in one direction and the White Mountains in the other.
I’ve got a lot of reasons why I think Mad River Glen is great for families – here are a few of my favorites.
(One caveat: Mad River Glen does not allow snowboarding, so if that’s your family’s passion, you’ll want to head over to nearby Sugarbush Resort instead.)
Everyone Can Learn at Mad River Glen
The instructors who work at Mad River Glen tend to have done so for a long time. In fact, when I started skiing again at 39 I took a private lesson with the same teacher who taught me when I was 11. Even the younger teachers often have grown up skiing at Mad River and have the knowledge of the mountain and the skills to prove it. The focus of every lesson is on helping you ski to the best of your ability, no matter what the conditions or terrain, and to make sure that you have fun doing it.
Kids programs at Mad River Glen are offered on weekends and during holidays and they are at their core all about teaching kids a healthy respect for the terrain while giving them the skills they need to ski all of it. Kids are grouped according to age and ability and there are no more than eight for each instructor. You can sign your child up for half- or full-day programs (choose the latter and lunch is included). It’s not a bad idea to make reservations in advance, especially if the conditions are good.
Private lessons are also available for kids and adults, and these are a great place to start if you are a beginning skier or feel intimidated by the terrain. There are also lots of great clinics for adults including women’s-only Saturdays, mogul-skiing lessons, and telemark clinics.
And you don’t have to take a lesson to learn at Mad River. The people who ski here regularly are among some of the best skiers you’ll ever see. I’m always watching and learning as I ride the lift or survey the trails. See someone doing something especially impressive? It’s small enough that you can probably find them later in the day and ask them for some tips. Mad River skiers love to talk about skiing, especially if there’s a delicious local beer involved.
Even the guys in the rental/repair shop on the mountain have suggestions to offer – stop by to find out where the best snow on the mountain is and to have them check the fit on your boots and bindings.
Mad River is Heaven on a Mountain for Kids
There is something about the smaller size of Mad River Glen that seems to make kids feel at home there. On winter weekends when the kids programs are running it can seem like there are more children than adults on the mountain sometimes, and I know my boys love that.
Having skied Mad River as a kid myself, I can tell you the mountain invites exploration. There are many side trails and skiable glades, not to mention any number of small jumps. I swear that children can smell where these are and I often turn around to look for my boys only to discover that they have darted off the trail and into the trees only to emerge, laughing onto the main trail a few minutes later.
And your kids don’t have to be expert skiers to enjoy Mad River Glen. Beginners don’t even have to ride a lift to enjoy the rope tow and gates at Callie’s Corner, where children can take gentle runs until they feel confident enough to try the main mountain. And the Birdland area (serviced by its own mid-mountain chairlift and small base lodge that are open on weekends and holidays) offers gentler, more groomed terrain that still has a few surprises in store.
You won’t find a lot of hot dogging at Mad River or huge crowds, making it a safe place for older, more experienced kids to go off and ski on their own. The lifts also offer their own rites of passage – my boys couldn’t wait to ride the Double Chair with no adults – so much more fun to them than all four of us on a quad. And every Mad River Glen child looks forward to his or her first solo ride on the Single Chair. Let the attendants know both so they can help but also to trumpet to the waiting line that a newbie is headed up the mountain solo for the first time.
And if you happen to have a child who isn’t too enthusiastic about skiing or who needs a break from it, be sure to check out the Naturalist programs on offer – you can rent snowshoes for your whole family and take a guided tour to learn about the animals and trees. Got a younger child who is two little to ski? The Cricket Club Daycare is state licensed and has been led by the same woman for decades. When my younger son was learning to ski as a three-year-old he spent half his time in lessons and half at the daycare – and in all honesty, he preferred the latter.
The Atmosphere Is Fun and Friendly
Mad River Glen is definitely a no whining zone. One of the central tenets of all its skiers is gratitude for the mountain, the sport, and life in general. You’re much more likely to hear people cheerfully saying that skiing is “firm” or “technical” as opposed to “icy” or “bare”. The fact that everyone is there to have fun tends to make it so.
Nothing about Mad River Glen is fancy, especially not the main lodge, which is called the Base Box. It smells like French fries and sweat. On weekends at 12:30 when everyone seems to stop for lunch at the same time the windows steam up and it’s easy to make friends with the family who has graciously allowed you to both share their wooden table and their tales from the mountain. When you’re done eating, thump down to the bathroom and the kids will beg you for a quarter to put in the giant “hole-in-one” gumball machine that sits next to the ancient row of lockers. It’s comfy, a little chaotic, and cheerful.
And I defy you to find a better après-ski hangout than General Stark’s Pub, also in the Base Box. It’s convivial for all ages, with a stone fireplace, hot chocolate topped with generous piles of whipped cream, and cult-favorite, hyper-local beer Lawson’s Finest Liquids, brewed with maple sap by Mad River Glen’s resident naturalist Sean Lawson. The bar itself is decorated with photos of Mad River skiers who have taken those bumper stickers to far-flung locales including the International Space Station.
The mountain has been a cooperative since the mid-1990s and is owned by many of the people who ski there. You’ll find three- and four-generation families enjoying the slopes together and there’s a definite sense that we’re paying it forward to our kids and grandkids by preserving and cherishing this old-school ski mountain.
Anyone Can Ski It
The terrain and snow at Mad River Glen are admittedly different then what you’ll find at other ski areas. Many of the trails are narrow. There is little snowmaking – which means you will want to check the conditions and forecast before you head there. And grooming is selective and careful, so you’ll find lots of natural features and few trails with the texture of a wall-to-wall carpet.
But there’s a challenge and simple beauty to the mountain that make it fun for skiers of all levels. It is always fun to ski because it is always different.
My family is in fact living proof that anyone can ski Mad River Glen: All four of us learned to ski there and my husband Matt was in his 40s when he did so. Even now, four years later, he’s not an aggressive skier (sorry honey) but he loves Mad River just as much as the rest of us do.
Another reason anyone can ski here? It’s a bargain. Day lift tickets and lessons are reasonably priced. For example, adults can ski midweek for just $60; buy a full-day group lesson for your child at $125 and get lunch and a lift ticket included. There are also a variety of multi-day and package deals available, so be sure to check the Mad River Glen website to figure out what works best for you and your family.
For my family and me, skiing at Mad River Glen always feels like coming home. I promise: No matter what the conditions, it will quickly become your skiing happy place. You can ski it, yes you can – and then you can buy the sticker to prove it.
P.S. It turns out that I’m not the only one who thinks Mad River Glen is pretty special. It recently was chosen as the Best Small-Town Ski Resort in New England by the readers of Trekaroo.